by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
NOTE: As many evangelical churches will have 4th of July Celebrations in worship on July 3, I offer a dissenting approach. One hundred years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon that disrupted the world of fundamentalism. His sermon still possesses the ring of truth. With evangelicals, the militance, the anger, the chip on the shoulder, the dogged certainty never changes. Only the issues change. My sermon includes some of Fosdick’s sermon and offers an updated version. The words of Fosdick are in italics.
This morning we consider the evangelical controversy which divides not only the American churches, as though already they were not sufficiently split and riven, but also our nation and democracy. A scene, suggestive for our thought, is depicted in the fifth chapter of the book of the Acts, where the Jewish leaders have before them Peter and other of the apostles because they have been preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Moreover, the Jewish leaders propose to slay them, when in opposition Gamaliel speaks: “Refrain from these men and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”
The evangelicals are a large subset of American Christians. Their apparent intention is to control church and state. I speak of them more freely because there is no group more dominated by the evangelicals than the Baptists – my tribe.
A wave of progressive civic virtue has overwhelmed the moral scruples of evangelicals. Instead of interpreting these movements as moral progress, the evangelicals see them as moral decline. The result of this progressive pedagogy has been the shaming of evangelicals as narrow-minded, homophobic, nativist, ablest, heteronormative judges. The previous masters of shame now face a shaming they refuse to accept. And they have responded in outrage.
While the defense of segregation was what first aroused this new wave of intolerant Christians, the issues they finally claimed as their own are abortion, gay rights, and feminism. Now the evangelicals are out on a campaign to reverse the gains in human rights. They seem to be saying, “How dare you call moral what we insist is immoral!”
It is interesting to note where the evangelicals are driving in their stakes to mark out the line in the sand. Back in the 1920’s these marks were all doctrinal: the virgin birth of our Lord; the inerrant Bible; the substitutionary theory of atonement; and the belief in the literal second coming of our Lord that will culminate in a rapture of all true believers and the destruction of all others on the planet.
The question is: has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? Back then the Fundamentalists said that this must be done. If they had their way, within the church, they would have set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the Pope’s.
But the modern version of the Fundamentalists, the evangelicals, and their political partners in the Republican Party, don’t give a fig’s leaf for dry doctrines. They have deserted theology for secular political power. They are determined to use the Supreme Court to impose their minority positions on the nation.
The shift in emphases is drastic and dangerous:
- From the Virgin Birth to anti-abortion.
- From the substitutionary atonement to atonement by guns and violence.
- From the inerrant, literal Bible to climate change denial.
- From the literal second coming of Jesus (premillennialism) to Christian nationalism (postmillennial dreams of a Christian America).
That we may be entirely candid and concrete and may not lose ourselves in any fog of generalities, let us this morning take three of these evangelical issues and see with reference to them what the situation is in the Christian churches. Let us face this morning some of the differences of opinion with which somehow, we must deal.
We may well begin with the vexed question of abortion. I know people in the Christian churches—ministers, missionaries, laymen, devoted lovers of the Lord and servants of the Gospel—who, alike as they are in their personal devotion to the Master, hold quite different points of view about abortion.
Here, for example, is one point of view; abortion is a crime, and the women, doctors, health care operators who engage in abortion should be arrested and prosecuted. The Supreme Court, embracing the evangelical insistence on anti-abortion, has eliminated Roe vs. Wade, and made abortion illegal according to federal law. That is one point of view, and approximately 25% of the citizens of the USA hold this view.
But, side by side with them in other churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the abortion is not a crime, that abortion should be legal, and that the rights of women are being violated. To insist the pro-choice persons are “baby killers” is one of the familiar ways in which the evangelicals demonize people for disagreeing with them.
Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people, and the question that the evangelicals raise is this: In addition to eliminating the right to abortion, what other rights should also be taken away? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not this nation large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this, and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The evangelicals say not. They say that liberals are immoral. Well, if the evangelicals should press their abortion victory to other human rights issues, how far will they go?
Separation of Church and State
Consider another matter on which there is a sincere difference of opinion among Christians: the separation of church and state.
One point of view is that the original documents of the Constitution and the ideas of the Founding Fathers did not include any separation of church and state. Whether we deal with the revisionist history of David Barton and his tribe or the haughty claims by Representative Lauren Boebert that the separation of church and state “is junk,” we are dealing with an attempt to impose evangelical understandings of church and state on a diverse nation.
Barton has turned in his red, white, and blue clown suit for the regal black robes of the Supreme Court. His ideas are now calling the shots as the Supreme Court participates in the demolition of the wall of separation of church and state. Some evangelicals would be content if the Supreme Court put evangelical Christian prayers back in public schools and the teaching of the Bible by evangelical teachers back in the curriculum. There are other, much more specious, and dangerous proponents of Christian nationalism, who would replace the Constitution of the USA with the laws of the book of Leviticus.
Then there are lovers of our democracy who insist that there never be even one crack in the wall of separation. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists of his day, these Christians hold sacred the necessity of keeping the church out of the business of running the government. Indeed, that awful notion of a theocracy seems to them a positive peril to the spiritual life. In this respect, the evangelicals look more like the Jihadi Muslims than Christians.
There’s historical irony that a Supreme Court filled with Roman Catholics are demolishing the First Amendment. Have they overlooked that when Catholics first came to this country, it was a Protestant nation fueled by anti-Catholicism?
A strong anti-Catholicism poured forth from Rev. J. Frank Norris, fundamentalist preacher in the 1920’s. Claiming that “many of my warmest personal friends are Catholics,” Norris still insisted that Catholics should not be elected to political offices. Of the Catholic Church he said, “It knows allegiance to the Pope. They would behead every Protestant preacher and disembowel every Protestant mother. They would burn to ashes every Protestant Church and dynamite every Protestant school. They would destroy the public schools and annihilate every one of our institutions.”
In case you think that the ravings of Rev. Norris are long forgotten, listen to the voice of the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress as he expresses his sentiments about Catholics: “A Babylonian mystery religion that spread like a cult around the world and infected the early church and corrupted it.” He described the Catholic church as a “cult-like religion” and “showing the genius of Satan.”
Attack on Science
Another issue the evangelicals are pushing is an attack on science. The evangelicals push anti-science ideas that endanger the future of our planet. From their anti-evolution movement in the early 20th century to their climate denial movement today, they are promoting a politics of precarity. The entire human race now dwells in the land of precarity. Humans are on the endangered species list.
Progressives have long insisted that faith and science are not enemies. Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable. Kenneth Miller, cell biologist, reminds us, “Science serves as an incubator of ideas, an engine of creativity that has lifted the condition of humans everywhere. We have a scientific spirit of exploration, ingenuity, and deep desire for the finding the truth.”
The evangelicals threaten our scientific spirit. They want us to go back to a naïve time when Eve cavorted with dinosaurs, Elijah made the sun stand still, and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish only to be burped out three days later.
I do not believe for one moment that the evangelicals are going to succeed. Like a biblical plague of locusts, they appear from time-to-time, sweep across the land, and then disappear again. They are more of an uprising than a movement – the fundamentalists in the 1920’s, the Moral Majority in the 1970’s and now the Christian nationalists in 2022. Americans are constitutionally unfit for long periods of intolerance. Having dismissed prohibition from the Constitution after only thirteen years, America recovers from moments of moralistic intolerance. We have a stubborn commitment to returning to the better angels of our nation after a period of craziness.
The evangelicals may not know what monster they have released from the deep – the political Leviathan. The devil exacts a high price for allowing a people to use his dark potions to claim power. Power’s corrupting influence always produces envy, jealousy, and selfishness.
The person that evangelicals have chosen to lead them to the kingdom on earth, Donald Trump, doesn’t play well with others. Testimony at the January 6 hearings told of an enraged president throwing a bottle of ketchup against the wall in the White House. The evangelicals may think they will control a theocracy, but they will we swallowed up by an autocrat that enforces fascism on all of us. “We should not be surprised that a 17th-century Asian table sauce – made of pickled fish” – would show up on the White House wall – “slung from an octagonal bottle of sugary red pulp known as ketchup.” (Joshua Gunn, Political Perversion). The metaphor puts us squarely into the junk food jungle of perverse politics.
Unwilling to face truth, unwilling to hear truth, possessed only by the lust for power, the evangelicals simply put ketchup on everything to obscure not only taste, but vision, reality, and truth. The evangelicals have sold the nation junk food. Nothing is as dangerous to the digestive system of the planet as climate denial. Denying the Christian doctrine of stewardship, with a rhetorical bit of Barnum humbuggery that keeps the fossil fuel flowing and the corporate coffers full, is a heresy. The sacrifice of the environment – water, land, and air – has been turned into a means to make money by the anti-science crowd. These “hawkers of holiness,” in the words of Kelly Johnson, profit millions by selling us a bill of goods.
If then, the evangelicals have no solution of the problem, where may we expect to find it? In two concluding comments let us consider our reply to that inquiry. The first element that is necessary is a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty. When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems? This is not a lesson which the evangelicals alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it. It was a wise liberal, the most adventurous man of his day—Paul the apostle—who said, “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.“
The second element which is needed, …. is a …. sense of penitent shame that the Christian church should be quarreling over …. matters when the world is dying of great needs.
The present world situation smells to heaven! And now in the presence of’ colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the evangelicals propose to control church and state. What immeasurable folly! Well, they are not going to do it, certainly not in this vicinity. I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be an evangelical. Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever-increasing areas of the Christian fellowship: intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.
(The quotes from Fosdick’s 1922 sermon are taken from: The Riverside Preachers, ed. Paul H. Sherry (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1978), 27-38.)